When preparing a budget, whether it's annual or biennial, whether it's done by your town board, school district or municipal, state and federal governments, we expect the result to be a fiscal document.
Not a policy document.
But that's what the Wisconsin Legislature has done. It has forwarded to Republican Gov. Scott Walker a $70 billion two-year spending plan that's littered with policy items that have no place in a fiscal document.
These issues should be taken up on their own in the Legislature, not lumped into a bill that needs to pass by July 1 and not when significant policy changes are added after midnight after a full day and night of legislative caucuses and sessions.
Assembly Democrats plan to do just that. Instead of offering the plethora of amendments they had for the budget, they plan on drafting bills that will go before the Legislature.
That's the way it should be done.
Many policy items represent significant changes in how we conduct business and live. Private school voucher expansion could be called a fiscal item, but it's a huge policy change that changes the face of public education. It merits statewide hearings and a wider debate before being placed in the budget.
In Walker's original proposal, nonfiscal items included changes to residency rules, DNA collection, elk hunting and wolf hunting at night. The Joint Finance Committee compounded that by adding items on bail bondsmen, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, designation of a state pastry, high-capacity wells and notary public fees.
These nonfiscal policy items were added, and Family Care expansion to seven Northeastern counties that could affect almost 8,000 people was left out, and a study ordered.
While we might agree with some of the nonfiscal measures, they deserve hearings and debate in the full light. They should not be added into an already huge fiscal bill where they're obscured by the weight of the other issues.
Both sides of the aisle have engaged in this type of budget-bill wrangling. When the Democrats occupied the governor's mansion and controlled the Legislature, they introduced 83 fiscal items in the 2009-11 budget, according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report. That compares with 94 in this budget.
It happens in Congress as well. But to say, "well, both sides do it," is not an excuse. It doesn't have to be so egregious. That same WPR report showed that only 30 nonfiscal items were in the 2007-09 budget when control of the Legislature was split.
It's perhaps naive to believe that one side, some faction or a leader will take a principled stand and remove any policy items from future budgets. That takes political courage and persistence. But any public servant who is acting in the best interests of his or her constituents should do this because it leads to transparency and an informed public.
That should be the goal.